These are extraordinary times when ‘all options are on the table’ — be it on Iran, North Korea or even Syria. Afghanistan has now been added to the list. The remarks by the United States deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes on Tuesday that the Barack Obama administration is also entertaining a ‘zero option’ with regard to post-2014 Afghanistan has caught everyone off balance.
Did Rhodes really mean it? Does Obama indeed have such an option? Maybe, the hair splitting is beside the point. What it highlighted in political terms was a complex message to multiple audiences.
First and foremost, remember that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had just landed on American soil to confabulate with Obama about the US role in the post-2014 period.
Karzai carries a wish list. He wants to be hundred percent certain that the US’ commitment to Afghanistan’s stabilization continues beyond the troop withdrawal envisaged through this year and the next.
Although Karzai never loses an opportunity to claim he is the master of his house, he ought to know that without continued American backing, his house can collapse like a pack of cards. It’s plain realism combined with an acute instinct of survival in a harsh country.
Do not forget that out of the three dozen odd Afghan army brigades that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization trained in all these years, it is only one single brigade that can possibly acquit itself in the heat of a battle with the Taliban. Now, that is saying a lot.
But then, as the Americans would say, there is nothing like free lunch. If the US troops should remain in Afghanistan, well, there is a caveat, namely, the Pentagon will exercise full control over them and they will enjoy full immunity from the Afghan laws — even if they transgress in their behavior by, say, raping an Afghan woman, urinating on the Koran, walk into Afghan homes in search-and-destroy missions and so on.
More important, Washington expects an Afghan guarantee in the matter in black and white, and written and signed in a solemn document — a status of forces agreement.
Now, Karzai knows it is a ‘deal breaker’. In fact, this was exactly how Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki got rid of the US troops while pretending he wanted them around for the medium and long term. But Karzai is no Maliki and Afghanistan isn’t Iraq.
Karzai worked hard to get an Afghan ‘consensus’
in favor of granting the American demand. But it is just not one of those situations like when Lawrence of Arabia could bend and pick up a sheet of paper and write a promisory note on behalf of Her Majesty in London ostentatiously assuring the Bedouin chief in the Gulf of Aqaba on her behalf of a hefty bribe (in gold coins) to ‘incentivise’ him in the ‘Arab revolt’ against the Ottoman Turk.
Plainly put, Karzai lacks the the capacity — to deliver such an Afghan national consensus on a platter to the Oval Office. Now, Rhodes has put the ball back in Karzai’s court by gently reminding him, ‘Mr. President, it is all-or-nothing’.
By saying it aloud, Rhodes also hoped that his words will resonate in the Afghan bazaar and will rally opinion in that highly fragmented country in favor of an SOF agreement just the way Pentagon demands.
But, will the ploy work? A report by the RFERL
(which is government-funded) effectively claims that the ploy is working and Rhodes rattled the Afghan nerves, and that Afghans are scared stiff that the US might abandon them to the wolves by exercising the ‘zero option’.
Frankly, it is all becoming a farce. The Taliban would be laughing at the whole lot of them — Karzai, Rhodes and the RFERL. As the Taliban would see it, the US has zero options today — except to end the futile war.
Equally, no regional power would take Rhodes’ threat seriously. There is a deafening silence in the regional capitals. Rhodes failed to explain why if there is such a ‘zero option’ in reality lying on the table in the Oval Office, why then did the Pentagon spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the past year to revamp and refurbish the military bases in Bagram, Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad etc., so that they make a home away from home for the American troops.